Originally published in CBN News
Dr Mary Neal is an orthopedic surgeon who shares her medical practice and her love for outdoor adventure with her husband Bill.
In 1999 they planned an adventure that took Mary on a spiritual journey few have taken and returned to talk about.
“My husband and I really enjoy kayaking. We enjoy traveling. We speak Spanish. We’ve traveled internationally a number of times. So for my husband’s birthday I said, ‘OK this is the year we are going to do it.’ So we went to Chili for a vacation to kayak.”
After a week of kayaking, Bill sat out the final day with a sore back. Mary and the rest of their group kayaked through a treacherous stretch of the river.
“This is a section of river that is very well known for its waterfalls. These are drops of 10 to 15 feet, 20 feet maybe, which for an experienced kayaker is not a crazy thing. I went over the main drop and as I crested over the drop I could see the tremendous turbulence and tremendous volume.”
“As I hit the bottom of the drop, the front end of my boat became pinned. I and my boat were immediately and completely submerged. The volume and the force of the water was such that I was absolutely pressed to the front deck of the boat and I couldn’t move my arms far enough back to reach my spray skirt let alone push myself out.”
Mary was stuck. The only thing she could do was pray.
“I very sincerely asked that God’s will be done, and I meant it. I didn’t say ‘Oh please come and save me.’ I really meant it. I asked for God’s will to be done and at the moment I asked that, I was overcome by a very physical sensation of being held and comforted and reassured that everything was fine; that my husband would be fine, my four young children would be fine regardless of whether I lived or died. And I believe that Christ was holding me while I was still on the boat and was the One reassuring me.”
After several minutes of searching, the group leaders realized Mary was trapped under the falls. They came out on the rocks and they kept trying to get to the boat but the force and the volume of the water was such that they kept being flushed through.
“They just couldn’t get to me. At one point they sort of recognized that it was really turning into body recovery, not so much of a rescue.”
“My body was being slowly sucked over the front deck. So what that meant was when it got to my knees, my knees bent back on themselves and I could feel that. I’m an orthopedic surgeon. I analytically was thinking, ‘Well, feels like my tibia probably broke.'”
“But I wasn’t screaming. I didn’t have pain. I didn’t have fear. I didn’t have that sense of air hunger. I know that I’ve been under water too long to be alive, yet I feel more alive than I’ve ever felt. This is more real than anything I’ve ever experienced. As my body broke free from my boat, I felt my spirit break free from my body and I rose up and out of the river.”
Mary looked down on the river as she left her body. Then, she was met by a group of heavenly beings.
“They were absolutely overjoyed to see me and greet me, and I them. I knew that they had known me and loved me as long as I existed and I knew that I had known them and loved them. I knew that they had been sent by God.”
“They began taking me down this exceptionally beautiful path that was brilliant and they were taking me toward this great domed structure of sorts that was not only was exploding with beauty and color, but it was exploding with this absolute love of God.”
“(It) was beyond anything that I could ever describe or ever truly explain and I could hardly wait. I was absolutely overwhelmed with this sensation of being home, of being where I belonged. But just as quickly, there was this sense of disappointment that descended on everyone. The spirits who had taken me there told me that it wasn’t my time and I had more work to do on earth and I had to go back to my body.”
After what seemed like hours with her heavenly hosts, Neal returned to the river and watched as her friends recovered her body.
“I could see my body being pulled to the shore and I could see the guys start CPR. I felt like he was looking right at me and begging me to come back and take a breath. I lay down and I was reunited, in the middle of a very remote part of South America.”
Neal had been gone for over 15 minutes, perhaps as long as 25 minutes – certainly longer than medical science can explain her survival.
She was flown back to the United States where she slowly recovered from her injuries. In her book, To Heaven and Back, she talks about how the reality of God’s love has changed her for eternity.
“All of the promises of God are true. God loves each and every one of us and really is there and is working in each and every one of our lives. That love is everything. If we truly could accept that, it changes everything. It changes the way you view every moment of every day. The fact that there really is life after death profoundly changes the way you approach every moment.”